By now, most of us have a pretty good idea of what we think about the shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot repeatedly nearly three months ago by white police officer Darren Wilson.
We have arrived at our conclusions based on reports we may have read or seen, the people we’ve talked to about it and what our own experience or gut tells us likely happened. It’s similar to how we make up our minds on most issues.
So, let’s do a quick test to see how open our minds really are when we hear about socially divisive issues. Make a list of up to seven of your close confidants, with whom you most often talk about important matters. Seriously, do it right now. Jot down those names.
Now, let’s look at that list a little closer. Chances are high that if you are white, most everyone else you talk to about topics like Ferguson are also white. In a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, three-quarters of white respondents said their closest confidants only included other white people. The same sort of insulation was true for slightly less than two-thirds of black Americans.
The people we discuss events with influence the way we think about them, and a vast majority of us only talk to people who look and think much like we do.
Choosing our news sources
We already live in an “echo chamber” of news nowadays. We can choose to get our information from news sources that share our own biases. It makes us feel good to have our assumptions reaffirmed, even if the actual facts run counter to what we believe. If we do the same with our friends, where is the trusted source who may actually challenge our preconceived notions? How do we even begin to consider the point of view of someone who has had a different life experience if we never seek a divergent opinion on such issues?
Even if your short list includes some racial diversity, how many conservatives included a liberal on their list, or vice versa? Do you regularly seek the input of someone you respect or like whom you know is likely to come from a different political, religious or racial background than yourself?
One of the most striking things Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said, in the aftermath of protests that rocked the region and captured the attention of the world, was that he had no idea his city had areas of deep racial tensions.
The St. Louis suburb doesn’t have a race problem, he insisted. He had no idea.
“I keep a lot of African-American friends – some of my dearest friends – but when we hang out at the brew house, we don’t talk about these issues,” he said in a Washington Post article.
So it’s not enough to simply have friends who may hold different points of view. We have to actually discuss something deeper than the latest sports news or personal gossip with them.
That’s hard to do. Why approach a topic that’s likely to cause conflict when most of us simply want to be validated by the people we choose to be around? Life can be fractious enough. But when we insulate ourselves, we end up with huge holes in our understanding of the world.
Our polarized society
Most of us hate how polarized our society has become in its discourse about race and politics. Here’s a simple way to begin to make a small, personal change: If you like someone well enough to share a drink or meal with them, consider asking a question about a difficult topic, like Ferguson or police violence. Instead of approaching the conversation as a conflict or a way to “win” or score a point, consider asking a question and just listening to the response.
Yes, just take a minute to listen to what another person might have to say. There’s a good chance that if they know you have a different opinion, they will soften their own words when they respond. Don’t take the answer as a personal attack or indictment of yourself.
If what you hear makes you so upset that you can’t bear listening anymore, just change the subject. Later on, try thinking about what was said.
It’s hard to separate ourselves from the ethnic, social and political groups to which we belong – our tribes. But consider this a moment to be brave. Consider it a chance to make our society more tolerant and understanding. Consider it a chance to show our children how we continue to grow and learn our entire lives, even by the friends we choose and how we talk to them.
Look at the list you made, and ask yourself what it says about you.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.